Dredging a Riverine Mind: On “Pond”

July 25, 2016 | 6 min read


“They are close to one another but not exactly side by side,” says the unnamed narrator of Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond, discussing two framed fragments of decorative cloth sitting on her mantelpiece. “They are related, but they aren’t a pair.” She might as well be describing the stories contained in Bennett’s first book. As a book, Pond rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other. Some biographical details concerning our central character do emerge. The narrator has moved to a small cottage in the countryside in the west of Ireland. She has recently quit an academic career and given up on her doctoral thesis. One or more relationships have ended, if not disastrously, then not without lingering complication.

The book is something like a diary, detailing a time just after a major decision was made by someone without much of a plan concerning what would happen next. The combination of a life-left-behind and the lack of a distinct life-to-come leaves the book swirling in some kind of dream-like stasis, the tiny world of house and garden mushrooming until those narrow grounds constitute an entire universe. The feeling is not exactly one of loneliness. The narrator does not feel dispossessed of others; she is most often quite content, and indeed finds it preferable, to be alone.

The narrator’s isolation allows for her mind to range across her small and homely cosmos. Nothing is below notice, and everything can be considered. When the narrator sits beside a bowl on a garden bench, she describes it as “an effort on my part not to glance down at it and ask it how it was doing.” When she decides to iron two of her lover’s shirts, she spends some time choosing which one to do first. Even though the decision makes no material difference – perhaps because of that – she can take pleasure in making it, and feel as if the right decision was made: “It wasn’t long after I got started on the darker shirt that I began to feel very happy indeed.”

coverThis elevation of the mundane into the highest order of aesthetic consideration has its literary forebears. It could be reminiscent of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s Against Nature, where the eccentric Jean des Esseintes actively seeks out the most rarified of aesthetic experiences, living a fin de siècle existence where no aspect of daily life could not be refined. But Pond is not satire. Even though it is regularly very funny, and the narrator is possessed of a very sharp and witty mind, there is nothing ironic about it. The short, farcical prose-poem about the refrigerated tube of tomato puree (“Oh, Tomato Puree—let me lay you out and pummel those rigid furrows and creases!”) is surrealist comedy at its finest, but the joke is not made at the expense of tomato puree, or for that matter anyone who currently has a tube lying twisted and forgotten in their fridge. It’s just funny, what you might notice, without ever being sure quite why.

Uncertainty is perhaps the book’s pervading emotion. Moments of clarity, such as the soft domestic scene with the shirts or a more abstruse conviction in the age and character of a storm, are never without a shadow of doubt. This uncertainty worms its way into the writing of the stories themselves. The narrator repeatedly tells us that she is unsure why she is telling us whatever it is she’s telling us. Sometimes, as in the wonderfully discursive “Morning, Noon & Night,” there is a sense of reading whatever is crossing the mind; “I don’t see what all the fuss is about where en suites are concerned” or “Placemats aren’t really my thing to be perfectly honest…” Elsewhere, in the tellingly-titled “Words Fail Me,” there is a questioning and revisioning of the veracity of what is being said: “I don’t know why I came to stop standing there and shut the door. Or maybe I didn’t shut the door. That’s more like it.”

Gradually, an impression builds that much of what the narrator is telling us is a way of avoiding telling us something else, something altogether more troubling. She herself acknowledges this when, in “The Deepest Sea,” she covers a clandestine love for green ink, the origins of Parker and Sheaffer fountain pens, shopping bags, shabby clothes and the hidden treasures of her cottage’s communal shed before telling us that “this is all a preamble really, of course it is, going on and on, as much as possible, so as not to ever get to what it was I really came across.” There is an echo here of Virginia Woolf’s famous essay on going out to get a pencil and being sucked into the fascinating street life of London. Here, the true object of the narrator’s concern is a letter from a former lover, a love letter “intent upon pushing right into every corrosive crevice and scabrous contour of its own impossibility. So much action, so much energy—so much of everything; I stopped and looked around, turning my head so as to include the gates in my survey—surely he was somewhere.” This is writing so powerful, writing that so “directly came into contact with his mind in motion,” that it seems to make its author present.

If the letter serves as a mirror to the ambition of Bennett’s own writing, Pond is a record of the difficulties of following so closely the “mind in motion,” particularly a mind that lives almost eternally in the “corrosive crevice and scabrous contour of its own impossibility,” a mind that knows that “the desire to come apart irrevocably will always be as strong, if not stronger, than the drive to establish oneself.” The book as such is about control; the control of the author over the words they use, the control of the individual mind over the thoughts it thinks. Might the words control the writer, or might the thoughts possess the thinker? Much of the book examines the strange process of alienation anyone might experience as they find themselves with time and space to interrogate their own behavior, private or otherwise. The narrator’s rambling often acts as a way of breaking down that behavior into manageable parts, seeking some form of control over a mind that sometimes slips the yoke of established social logic, an identity that loses track of where it ends and the rest of the world begins.

This is most obvious in “Morning, 1908,” where the long build-up of musings relating to the subjectivity of things like storms and holly branches finally reaches a head. The narrator’s tendency toward the cosmological, a viewpoint which elides the borders of thing and person, leads her to wonder if, were she to be raped by a stranger on a deserted country road, whether she would be at all transgressed, if indeed there was any coherent “her” to transgress upon. This penetrating but ambiguous rumination is quickly succeeded, in “The Gloves Are Off,” by a total breakdown of language. What starts out as a simple, if uncharacteristic, decision to weed the garden quickly devolves into something deeper and more fractious. “Oh, fuck the leaves and fuck the flowers! I want to see naked trees and hear the earth gasp and settle into a warm and tender mass of radiant darkness.” Down beneath the grass of the lawn, deep in the bare earth, something pivotal has been hidden, or lost. “You don’t know how passionate it is down there. I believe that’s where I lost my heart.” At this point, coherence is given up entirely, and the words descend into something other than what they mean, something below what they mean, and attack the senses directly. “No, no. None shilly shilly on that here first run. So, much girded with new multitudes, a sun came purple and the hail turned in a year or two. And that was not all. No, no. None ganny ganny on that here moon loose. Turns were taken and time put in, so much heft and grimace, there, with callouses, all along the diagonal.”

What this beautiful section highlights, and what those two stories back-to-back make clear, is both the desire for control and an elemental joy perhaps only to be found in losing it. In contrast to so much ecstatic rhetoric, the narrator is not concerned with transcending herself through an absolute clarity but returning to some “unalloyed self” through direct contact with the lower layers of the everyday – this is a darker kind of epiphany. It is a rejection of the often stifling social mores of modern living, a circumvention of the pressure to be ambitious or driven or efficiently purposeful in one’s daily activities, an undermining of the idea of a stable, coherent self. It is a rejection of the form of a life as much as an expansion of what might be recognizable within one.

It does much the same for the idea of a story. Pond is maybe best understood as an embrace of all that wriggles in the dirt, and an experiment in uncovering that engrossing underworld beneath our more refined and constructed selves through the act of writing. Bennett, like Clarice Lispector or Robert Walser before her, writes through the dramatic into something deeper, and the result is a reverie of “fervid primary visions,” the dredging of a riverine mind.

is a writer living in Dublin, Ireland. He writes about art, music and books for the Irish Times, The Wire, and Gorse, amongst others. He’s on Twitter: @ianmaleney.